Friday, August 29, 2008

New Leader, Same Band

One might think that today's installment on the countdown ought to rank a bit higher, but while there's been a lot of ink thrown at this story, I don't see as the seismic shift in philosophy some are making it out to be. Tying in with Charlie's desire to be a better head coach, we scan over how his top lieutenant's development might shape the Irish season...

#8 - The Haywood Effect

The gut reaction upon hearing that Weis was ceding playcaller duties to Michael Haywood, a former Notre Dame receiver, was equal parts concern and intrigue. Concern because, let's face it, for all the flaws in the 2007 logic, few people would argue Weis' strongest attribute is offensive playcalling and he's now turned the operation over to a career assistant who's been an offensive coordinator (in name only) for just 3 seasons and never handled in-game playcalling. Intrigue because a) there was a growing feeling that Weis' ego was getting in the way of his development by not giving up the call sheet, so how would this announcement alter that, and b) while Haywood may just now be getting the keys to the car, he's had an opportunity to understudy some of the best drivers in the game for more than a decade.

Haywood spent time as running backs coach first for Nick Saban at LSU and then Mack Brown at Texas, both regarded as superb offensive minds in the college game. For three years he's had plenty of input while directing the offenses that ranked in top 20 both in 2005 and 2006; in the former season he earned Assistant Coach of the Year honors from the AFCA. This is not his first rodeo. If Weis were handing things over to a new hire with little familiarity in the system, no relationship with the players and no track record of being around successful offenses, the hand-wringing would be justified.

Having said that, worry is not without merit. How quickly can Haywood climb the learning curve of "the game within the game"? This is a key question, the answer to which will impact every drive the Irish mount in 2008. After all, if Weis truly believed that the offense was beyond repair he'd have brought in a new coordinator for a new system. The offense Haywood will run is the same one he's been working with every day for three years - the only upgrade is the man wielding the call sheet. He's not being looked at to reinvent the wheel, but he is being looked at to quickly grow into the role of how to meticulously prepare ahead of time and then prepare to adjust on the fly mid-game.

A good example of what I'm talking about could be taken from Weis' opening game in 2005 against Pittsburgh. Unlike his counterpart Matt Cavanaugh, also imported from the NFL, Weis had specific plays tailored depending on which hash mark the ball was spotted on (Cavanaugh admitted after the game several bad plays were the result of him not remembering the different set-ups on college and pro fields). Additionally, Weis had a series of plays ready in case Pitt came out using Dave Wannstedt's preferred defense, and one if they saw the defense of Paul Rhoads, who was retained from the Walt Harris era. According to Weis it took five plays to figure out which one was out there, and the sixth play was Darius Walker's 55-yard screen touchdown. Weis' aptitude on offense has been culled largely from having expectations before the play's ever been run - he sees, and expects his players to see also, that a certain play will generate five yards without exception on first down to set up second and short. And if it fails, he's already formed a plan B, C, and D. Last season Weis became too consumed with contingencies to even make sure his players were with him at step A.

So enter Mike Haywood. He has a big challenge in front of him no question, one that will register a big impact on Notre Dame in 2008 and beyond as well as his own career - remember he was a serious candidate for the top spot at the University of Houston and a successful year or two as a 'play-calling' offensive coordinator could put him on the radar of even more high-profile jobs. But first things first - the Irish need an identity on offense and they need it coming out of the gate on the first play. A year ago they tried to mold one week-to-week before finally, in game #4, Weis realized the grab-bag approach was an utter catastrophe. It's encouraging how much both the head coach and his coordinator share the same approach in making the plan rise to their expectations:
One of the main things Haywood learned from Weis is to be consistent in play-calling and to make sure players understand what the team is trying to achieve with each play.

"We're teaching them that on first and 10 when we call this play, we're expecting four yards on this play to make it second and six. On the next call, we're making a call to get us in third and short or to pick up the first down," he said.
Handing the reigns to Haywood is a commitment to avoid making the same mistake twice; now it's up to Haywood to prove the Irish will be doing a lot more than just making a brand new one.

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